The Bonny Earl of Moray
Background: The Murder
Like the murder of his father-in-law, that of James Stewart, the second Earl of Moray is extremely well documented. The murder seems to have captured the popular imagination far more than the first Earl's though, the sense of public outrage has far more in common with Darnley's murder than the Regent's. This is perhaps due to the fact that, like Darnley, the second Earl was young and handsome, a fashionable and popular figure in court, although not a favourite of the King himself. His nickname, 'the Bonny Earl' may have been posthumous, but there is no doubt that he was renowned for his looks, his height and his athleticism, as is recorded in the contemporary memoirs of David Moysie, a public notary from Edinburgh, who characterises the Earl as "the lustiest youthe". A report on The Present State of the Nobility of Scotland, sent by an envoy to the court of Queen Elizabeth in 1583 confirms this picture, with Moray described as being "Of a very tall stature, but lyttle proofe" This last remark shows that, as had been the case with Darnley, the Earl (who was a poor landlord and often in debt from gambling) was by no means the heroic figure he was sometimes portrayed as after his murder. Whatever his virtues while alive though, the Earl of Moray's death on the 7th of February. 1592 at the hands of his great rival in the north, George Gordon, the 6th Earl of Huntly - one of the King's favourites - resulted in fervent calls for revenge and justice in painting and verse, as well as in protracted legal proceedings.
The murder was the culmination of a feud between the houses of Moray and Huntly which had been going on since 1562, when Mary's elevation of her half-brother to the Earldom of Moray had robbed the Huntly's of some of their authority in the north-east of Scotland. Although the 'Bonny Earl' was an outsider in the region (having gained his title through his marriage to the Regent's daughter), his rivalry with Huntly for attention at Court as well as for dominance in the north, did little to heal the divisions between the families. The fact that Huntly was a favourite of the King also made Moray's position more precarious than he may have realised, especially if, as is possible, rumours had begun to circulate concerning James wife, Queen Anne's affection towards the young Earl.
All of the available sources (official documents, as well as letters, diary entries and ballads) agree on the basic details of the murder. On the morning of February 7th, the Earl's house at Donibristle on the Fife coast was surrounded by the Earl of Huntly and a group of armed followers. As Moray and his servants made preparations for a siege, Huntly's men "sett the said house in fyre." Moray and his followers (notably the Sherriff of Moray, who was shot while attempting to save his lord by creating a diversion) briefly escaped. Moray was then discovered hiding among the rocks along the coastline, perhaps given away by a spark from the fire which had set light to his hat or the plume of his helmet as mentioned in some accounts. There he was slain with guns and swords.
Prior to the murder, the feud had mainly been characterised by acts of property destruction such as the ruining of fishing nets in the Spey by Huntly's men, as well as by non-fatal attacks of servants on both sides. Unlike the Earl of Moray though, Huntly not only a favourite of the King but also a man of great political importance, holding the office of 'Lieutenant of the North' and so he had the opportunity to take more extreme action than was available to Moray. Indeed, Huntly's seemingly limitless power within the region seems to have been a cause of constant friction between the two families. At the same time, Huntly, as an open and unrepentant Catholic (by now a rarity among the nobility) was viewed with a degree of suspicion, not least by the church. This last point helps to explain the popular appeal of the young Earl of Moray, as well as the widespread outcry following the murder, which spread far beyond the circle of Moray's friends and relations.
The scandalous nature of Moray's murder rested on two main points - the fact that it took place at his private residence, which was also destroyed, and the possibly approving attitude of the King to the events. The first point was undeniable: the second debatable but the unfortunate truth was that the Earl and a handful of his retainers were in Donibristle because the King had summoned him to Fife to take part in peaceful negotiations with Huntly and was therefore caught off-guard.
Despite the seemingly anarchic violence prevalent in 16th century Scotland, bloodfeuds were actually governed by a set of widely recognised customs and in killing the Earl at home and destroying the house itself (an act referred to as hamesucken) Huntly stepped beyond the acceptable boundaries of behaviour, even against one's enemies.
Whatever King James' thoughts about the murder itself, he was guilty, at the very least, of issuing Huntly with a warrant for the arrest of the Earl of Moray, in the full knowledge that a deadly state of feud existing between the two men. As had been the case with James' mother Mary in the Darnley murder, the King's inactivity did little to dispel the rumour that he was implicated in the murder in some way.
The Vendetta portrait of the Earl of Moray was, as in the Darnley case, partly the result of the disruption of normal burial rites. As Moysie reports, "the deid bodies of the erle of Murray and scheref of Murray wer brocht over the water to Leithe be the lady Doun his mother... to present thame to the King; quhairof his Majestie... commandit the bailyeis of Leithe to arreast the dead bodyeis in thair ludging... and suffer thame not to be transported." Following this failure, Lady Doune commissioned the painting for a similar purpose - Moray's mother "caused draw her sonne's picture, as he was demained, and presented it to the King in a fine lane cloath, with lamentations, and earnest sute for justice", later "to be shewn at the Cross in Edinburgh, but the King liked not to look upon his corpse." Though the picture was presumably displayed publicly, Lady Moray was less successful than the Earl and Countess of Lennox and their supporters in presenting the picture to its intended audience, King James.
The King's refusal to look at the body even in the form of a picture could however be seen as an admission of guilt in its own right, given the King's own beliefs as stated in his book, Daemonologie: "In a secret Murther, iff the dead carcase be at any time thereafter handled by the Murtherer, it wil gush out of bloud; as if the bloud were crying to heaven for the revenge of the Murtherer." In any case, it did little to establish his innocence and nor did his refusal to take significant action against Huntly, who remained in favour. In fact, the sense of outrage grew rapidly and the King found himself on the receiving end of embarrassingly public criticism. This came both from noblemen such as Lord Ochiltree, who had himself unwittingly summoned Moray to Donibristle and was outraged at the murder (committing himself to Lady Doune's call for revenge) and leading churchmen such as Reverend Patrick Symson, who, during a sermon at which the King was present, drew a parallel between Cain and Abel and the Moray murder, saying to the King, "Sir, I assure you in God's name, the Lord will aske at you, 'Where is the Erle of Murray, your brother?"
Whether or not the King was involved in the murder, most contemporary sources, including the anonymous ballads' composers agreed that his failure to act when called on to punish the crime (Huntly's sole punishment was to make a public display of grief, though not repentance in 1597) was little better than an admission of guilt.
The painting itself is a stark and simple image of the Earl's dead and mutilated body painted presumably with the actual corpse present in the days following the murder. The large (73.7 x 221 cm) canvas depicts the Earl's body lying on a dark, indistinct background perhaps the 'green' on which he was lain in the famous ballad. Aside from a reference to God in the painting's forceful inscription the painting, unlike the Darnley Memorial has no spiritual dimension, and is completely devoid of religious references or symbolism. This is not uncommon in the art (or indeed the funeral rites) of the Reformation, when the souls of the dead were considered by the Protestant reformers to be beyond the reach of any influence from the living, leaving only the empty shell of the corpse behind. As such, the call directly to God for revenge (as in many of the Revenge Tragedies of the period) reflects not only piety but also the perceived inadequacy of the legal system.
The artist of the Moray painting is unknown, but it is almost certain to be one of the decorative heraldic painters employed by the court for works such as banners, decorations, heraldic devices and books such as the famous Seton Armorial. The Edinburgh artist John Workman (fl 1589- d 1604) has been put forward as the most likely candidate for the production of the painting as he was responsible for the 'ceremonies and furnitour' for the Earl's funeral. However, this attribution is explicitly denied by the same document in the Scottish Records Office which states as a condition of his work for the funeral that Workman "be nocht subject to furneis not deliver the said noble lordis pictour." Workman's appointment in 1592 by the King as "paynter or the armes of all knichtis, lordis, erles and dukes at...funerallis and all uther tymis and occasionis" was prestigious enough that he did not want to risk his position by taking part in an action which could be seen at best as provocative and at worst treasonable. However, the style of the picture certainly suggests that of a local heraldic painter and it is possible that, with the document explicitly freeing him from responsibility he felt able to undertake the commission, which was to remain anonymous in any case.
The portrait is unusual in several respects - unlike the Darnley Memorial (but conforming to the descriptions of the Darnley and Moray banners) it is a stark, simple image, unconcerned with the usual aims of Renaissance portraiture - the depiction of personality and status. Like the Darley banner, it is concerned only with commemoration in a very narrow way; the commemoration not of the life (as with Sir Henry Unton) but only of the murder itself, and the injustice of the act. Paradoxically, this lack of concern with the humanistic values of portrait painting lends the picture a greater sense of naturalism than was typical in the Scottish portraiture of the period. Partly this reflects the influence of the Flemish and Dutch art preferred by noble patrons, but mainly the painting looks as it does because it was a replacement for the Earl's actual body. In this sense it is, like the Darnley Memorial, a kind of painted effigy and as it was being placed before the king in the place of the body itself it was important for the painting to be accurate. The details of the wounds suffered by the Earl were well known, so to convince viewers of its veracity the painting had to depict both the bullet holes and sword wounds that had been reported so extensively.
the torso with its variety of stab and bullet wounds
The accurate depiction of these wounds and the strong sense of physical presence imbued in the work (even down to the slightly swollen appearance of the torso) suggest that the artist painted directly from the corpse itself within days of the murder. The face, disfigured by two deep gouges, is individualised, but is less impressively painted than some of the other details, possibly because of the extensive damage to the face of the corpse itself. The urgency of the commission, as with that of the first Earl of Moray) is probably the main reason that a local artist was employed.
It is possible to trace the artist's training in decorative and heraldic painting in the simple clarity of the composition, with only the white loincloth and pillow standing out from the naturalistic colour scheme. Although the overall construction of the body suggests a lack of anatomical understanding, the individual details such as the wounds and especially the hands are powerfully realised. The background (perhaps darker now than originally painted) fixes the viewer's attention directly on the body of the Earl and his nakedness not only draws attention to his wounds but also draws attention to his youth and the powerful build for which he was known which, in contemporary opinion, added to the horror and injustice of the murder.
Although bearing a superficial resemblance to earlier religious paintings, such as Holbein's Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521) now in Basel, this was probably not intentional and would certainly have been considered blasphemous.
Whether intentional or not though, the painting would surely have reminded contemporary viewers of the kind of graphic depictions of gruesome martyrdom popular in church altarpieces, many of which would have been destroyed within living memory. At the same time, the simple directness of the work relates it to the 'national style' which had emerged during the reigns of James IV and V - appropriately, since this style had its roots in the kind of heraldic painting which was probably representative of the artist's usual day-to-day work.
A small inset scene links the portrait to the history painting tradition; it shows the burning of the house at Donibristle and the Earl's corpse lying on the rocky shore. As with the Darnley pictures, these narrative features transform the painting from a simple memorial to something more complicated and didactic, highlighting the most significant aspects of the story; not only the destruction of property, but also the barbaric and callous nature of the murder, with the corpse abandoned in the wilderness.
Rather than diluting the force of the image, the inset scene raises the viewer's awareness of the shocking nature of the death of the man whose body is laid before them. In turn, the life-size body, looming from the darkness, has the weight and solidity of dead flesh, making the clothed corpse in a pool of blood by the shore feel more real. The landscape corresponds very closely to the real shoreline it depicts, suggesting that the artist may have worked from drawings made, like the Darnley drawing, at the murder scene itself, a very unusual level of realism for Scottish art of this period.
The 'documentary' aspect is heightened by the inscription which gives (as was usual) the 'sitter's' age (AETA 24) but also the date of his death (1591 FEBR 7). The effect of the painting on a contemporary audience is not recorded, although its existence seems to have been well-known. Its intended audience was of course, King James himself, and this is alluded to in the painting by the most important inscription in the picture, the gold 'speech balloon' familiar from the Darnley paintings, reading GOD REVENGE MY CAUS.
As has been discussed, this phrase was strongly associated with the King himself, usually issuing from his own mouth. As such it represented a powerful call for justice that the King could hardly fail to recognise, and its use here, in the absence of the King's image, can be seen as particularly barbed.
The painting was presumably displayed publicly, whether at the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh or in the Earl's funeral procession. Along with the ballads bearing his name, the painting seems to have played a part in keeping the cause of the 'Bonny Earl' alive and, as with the Darnley case earlier in the century the effects of the murder were to linger on for some years. In the event, the King's refusal to even look at the picture at all means that the painting must be regarded as a failure in the narrow sense of directly influencing its intended audience. However, the written records demonstrate the extent to which such a painting was seen as a politically potent weapon.